Why commercial media shouldn’t fear a Googler at the helm of the ABC

Nic-Christensen-234x151-234x151-234x151With critics already lining up to take potshots at ABC MD frontrunner Michelle Guthrie before she is even officially appointed Nic Christensen argues commercial outlets shouldn’t be concerned about Aunty’s digital presence – in fact they should welcome it.

The sheer quantity of media attention that has already been devoted to Google executive Michelle Gurthrie’s likely appointment as ABC head honcho tells you something about the place of the public broadcaster in the Australian media landscape.

The AFR, SMH, Age, Oz, News.com.au, Guardian and SBS have all already weighed in, with Fairfax running a profile on Guthrie before she’s even signed.

There was one piece of commentary which ran in The Australian today from conservative thinktank the Institute of Public Affairs, which said it was concerned the Googler will lead the ABC down the “digital clickbait route”, which caught my attention.

Aside from the obvious flaw in the argument (Google is a search engine and doesn’t produce content, let alone “clickbait”), I wonder whether commercial rivals of Aunty aren’t getting a little too excited about its digital play.

Guthrie: tipped to replace Mark Scott at the ABC.

Guthrie: tipped to replace Mark Scott at the ABC.

For those wondering who Guthrie is her current role is selling Google’s search and online video products to media agencies across Asia. Prior to that she was CEO of Star TV, the satellite TV station in Asia which Guthrie took over from James Murdoch. Before that she had stints at Foxtel and BSkyB in senior legal roles. 

The news of the appointment, which appears to have come out of Canberra rather than the ABC, is interesting because it signals the board’s desire for an MD who gets both the worlds of digital and broadcast media.

There are indeed clear signs that Guthrie does not fear failure and will continue the ABC’s legacy in digital innovation.

You can get a sense of the media executive, who has led Google’s push to promote women in the business, from Matthew Knott’s profile of Guthrie and also this video of her being interviewed in Sweden:

In the conversation Gurthrie is asked what her approach to failure is. She quotes Google co-founder Larry Page who argues essentially that whenever we’ve tried to do something totally crazy there is generally nothing bad that has come out of it, either we have learnt that we shouldn’t do that again or we learn. We learn from trying things (about 11 minutes in).

Such a mentality puts her in good stead to take over from the current ABC head boss Mark Scott, who steps down from the role after a decade next year.

When the industry reflects on Scott’s legacy I would argue many will rightly focus on how he drove the public broadcaster into the digital era and that for much of his reign led the market in the space.

Mark Scott ABC

ABC boss Mark Scott, centre, his legacy will be digital leadership.

I’m thinking of examples like ABC iView which has led the market in catch-up TV and paved the way for others in areas like live streaming (hello Seven and Nine who discovered it in 2015, even though ABC News 24’s been doing it for years). Or the ABC iPad experiment The Brief which it started last year but later pulled, as it like many tablet publishers struggled for audience.

The BirefCritics might not like that the ABC competes and indeed regularly comes third/fourth in the Nielsen Online Ratings but that digital presence is today key in how it meets its charter.

The heart of opponent’s arguments is the claim that the ABC going “beyond its charter” by being in the digital space.

Now, to my mind, the notion that in 2015 the public broadcaster should be using taxpayer funds to create content and then not putting it online defies logic. If they didn’t “the critics” would just change tack and accuse them of wasting taxpayer funds.

None of this appears to worry Guthrie who told that forum in Sweden: “This is an incredible device but it has to be useful,”  referring to the importance of a mobile first approach.

“Content and fantastic programming is going to find an audience where ever they are. The key thing is to reach that audience, to know who they are and to connect with them.”

That may be the case but it is also worth noting the ABC does both content and stories that no one else does. I’m thinking of areas like Australian children’s programming, Four Corners’ stellar year of reporting or the ABC’s spotlight on issues of major public concern like mental health with Mental As or domestic violence with Sarah Ferguson’s recent special Hitting Home.

The public broadcaster’s work put both these issues front and centre in the national debate.

And at a time when the commercial networks are worrying about declining traditional TV audiences and increasingly reliant on news, sport and reality TV.

These are areas that only a public broadcaster can do. Seven, Nine and Ten’s appear to have neither the desire or the bravery to do this and it is something that the ABC should indeed be doing.

Malcolm Turnbull

Malcolm Turnbull wants an innovation nation.

The new PM Malcolm Turnbull has said he wants Australia to be an “innovation nation” and in the media space Mark Scott’s ABC leads its peers in a way that commercial operators can, and regularly do, learn from. Its successes and failures are very closely monitored.

A new ABC MD who continues their focus on innovation and who gets the mobile first, digital world of 2015 will be of benefit to both the ABC and the wider local media industry and will allows others to learn from them at no direct cost to them.

The fact that the board is looking to appoint someone who is clearly an innovator should be seen as a good thing. That said she is also likely to shake up the landscape. This quote from her interview in Sweden where she cites the media experience of her kids:

I look at my kids, who are 12 and 17, and I’m not sure they will ever watch broadcast television in the linear world but they watch more video programming than has ever been known to mankind … it’s just a question of if you have all this amazing content you can distribute it.”

The ABC’s critics will always find something to rail against. But in 2015/16 should any media organisation really not be maximising its presence online?

Nic Christensen is the deputy editor of Mumbrella. 


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